Sen. McCain re­bukes Army on its men­tal health waivers

He threat­ens to sus­pend Pen­tagon nom­i­na­tions

Chicago Sun-Times - - USA TODAY - Tom Van­den Brook

WASH­ING­TON – The Army’s de­ci­sion to al­low peo­ple with a his­tory of self- mu­ti­la­tion, bipo­lar dis­or­der, de­pres­sion and drug and al­co­hol abuse to seek­waivers to en­list in the ser­vice drew a sharp bi­par­ti­san re­buke Tues­day when Sen. John McCain said he was pre­pared to put a hold on nom­i­na­tions to Pen­tagon posts un­til the Army ex­plained the pol­icy.

McCain, the Ari­zona Repub­li­can who chairs the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, up­braided the nom­i­nee for Army gen­eral coun­sel, James McPher­son, in a hear­ing Tues­day on McPher­son’s nom­i­na­tion and those of two other Pen­tagon of­fi­cials.

McCain said he and the other com­mit­tee mem­bers learned about the change in pol­icy in a re­port Mon­day by USA TODAY.

“If you took a poll of this com­mit­tee right now, I doubt if you’d find a sin­gle one who would be ap­prov­ing of this prac­tice, which we now find out about read­ing the daily news­pa­per,” McCain said.

Sen. Jack Reed, the rank­ing Demo­crat on the com­mit­tee from Rhode Is­land, said he con­curred with McCain.

“We can­not sac­ri­fice qual­ity for quan­tity,” Reed said. “It’s that sim­ple. We have to do both, and we have to work to­gether to get it done.”

McCain also blasted the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and Pen­tagon for fail­ing to keep Congress in­formed of its ac­tions.

“It’s a prob­lem that, frankly, this com­mit­tee is hav­ing with this ad­min­is­tra­tion,” McCain said. “We should have been told about this be­fore it showed up in a USA TODAY ar­ti­cle.”

Mon­day’s re­port, based on in­ter­nal Army doc­u­ments, showed that the Army in Au­gust re­versed a pol­icy that had pre­vented peo­ple with men­tal health prob­lems, in­clud­ing “self­mu­ti­la­tion,” from seek­ing waivers to join. The bur­den of proof is on the ap­pli­cant to pro­vide a “clear and mer­i­to­ri­ous case” for the waiver, ac­cord­ing to one doc­u­ment.

The Army ac­knowl­edged in a state­ment to USA TODAY that the pro­hi­bi­tion on waivers had been “re­scinded” in Au­gust based pri­mar­ily on bet­ter ac­cess to ap­pli­cants’ med­i­cal records.

The ban had been in place since 2009, when it­was in­sti­tuted dur­ing a spike in sui­cides among ser­vice­mem­bers.

“Are we see­ing the same movie over and over again, Mr. McPher­son?” McCain asked.

McPher­son re­sponded, “Sen­a­tor, un­for­tu­nately it would seem that way.” McPher­son prom­ises an­swers The Army, in a state­ment re­leased Mon­day night and later sent to USA TODAY, made ref­er­ence to the USA TODAY re­port, call­ing it “in­ac­cu­rate.” Lt. Gen. Thomas Sea­mands, the Army’s top per­son­nel of­fi­cer, said the Army had not changed its med­i­cal entrance stan­dards, say­ing it had made a “sim­ple, ad­min­is­tra­tive change” that had been “sub­stan­tially mis­in­ter­preted.”

The Army said it had changed the ap­proval process for the waivers. Pre­vi­ously, the waivers had to be granted by Army head­quar­ters in Wash­ing­ton. Now they can be granted by the Army Re­cruit­ing Com­mand, Sea­mands said.

McPher­son, how­ever, called the story “trou­bling.” He vowed to seek an­swers about it.

“I be­lieve that his­tory has shown that when you bring in in­di­vid­u­als through a waiver process there’s a risk in­volved in that,” McPher­son said.

“A risk that they might not turn out to be ex­em­plary sol­diers.” McCain is­sues a warn­ing

The Army de­clined to say whether any waivers have been is­sued since Au­gust, a fact that ran­kled McCain and prompted his threat to halt Se­nate con­fir­ma­tions for key spots at the Pen­tagon.

He read lengthy ex­cerpts of the story to McPher­son.

“The United States Army will not re­spond to us as to how many waivers have been is­sued since the pol­icy was changed,” McCain said.

“We should have been told about this,” Sen. John McCain, R- Ariz., said in a hear­ing Tues­day.

SU­SAN WALSH/ AP

Sen. John McCain took the Army to task Tues­day on Capi­tol Hill.

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